Magazine article The Spectator

Real and Imagined Danger

Magazine article The Spectator

Real and Imagined Danger

Article excerpt

America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: US Foreign Policy Since 1945 by Andrew Alexander Biteback, £20, pp. 360, ISBN 9781849541046 What was the Cold War? For Professor John Lewis Gaddes, it was a conflict between two incompatible systems, democracy and communism, each with a different vision of liberty and human purpose. The result was a potential third world war, in which we risked being crushed by dictators or destroyed by nuclear weapons. And the US saved us. 'The world, ' he writes, 'I am quite sure, is a better place for the conflict having been fought in the way that it was and won by the side that won it. For all its dangers, atrocities, costs, distraction and moral compromises, the Cold War was a necessary contest.'

Andrew Alexander disagrees. And Alexander - who has long exposed the myopia and self-deception of the establishment - should be taken seriously. He argued against the Vietnam War, took on prices sand incomes policy, the fixed exchange rate and the ERM, and continued by opposing the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In almost every case, he stood against the received wisdom of the Financial Times, the Economist, the CBI, and (though they always printed his pieces) his editors at the Daily Mail.

In almost every case he was right. Now, he argues, in relation to the Cold War, that 'the world is a much more dangerous place, as a result of America's determination to save it.' It is difficult to imagine a more important thesis. As he writes:

If the world came close to nuclear Armageddon on half a dozen occasions, and expended so much blood and treasure for 40 years against a threat that was never real, this raises serious doubt about the integrity and basic intelligence of a whole succession of Western governments and the political institutions for which they make such high claims.

Alexander argues that communism never posed an existential threat to the security of the West. Stalin's primary aim was the preservation of his regime, and his only objective in Eastern Europe was to create a defensive buffer against any German advance. Not only did he lack the resources, the plans or the will to conquer Western Europe: he actively opposed communist revolutions around the world.

If Western Europe was safe from Soviet attack, the United States - thousands of miles further away - was even safer.

Nevertheless, an entire US policy industry emerged to argue the opposite, and to produce the most ingenious explanations of why a country like distant Vietnam could be, as Ronald Reagan claimed in 1963, 'the greatest threat that ever faced humankind in its climb from the swamp to the stars.'.

Alexander offers no single explanation for this obsession. Instead he patiently illustrates a dozen factors in the hypnotising, extravagant project. His account of Woodrow Wilson's peculiar rigidities and self-defeats at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and the US involvement in the Philippines and Cuba, suggests that US foreign policy was, for a century, less an instrument of democracy and more a form of eccentric imperialism. Unlike British policy, which was based on unwritten assumptions about the joy, responsibility and honour of imperial government, the US approach reflected a distaste for empire, and a worship of its own written constitution, and law, enlivened by acts of startling gangsterism.

Unlike British political officers, US officers were obsessed with the idea of human equality and freedom, but had little interest in, or attraction to alien cultures. Generals had a disproportionate influence on policy and frequently became presidents or secretaries of state. The resulting policy, from Vietnam to Iraq, could be both high minded and bluntly brutal.

The Cold War fears of Russia were elaborated by the defence industry, and the military, to justify their programmes, their budgets, and their losses. And they were further intensified by electoral politics, and the temptation in Senator Vandenberg's advice to Truman to sell international aid by 'scaring the hell out of the American people'. …

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